Belmont Club

The Information Dilemma

What does the unrest in Turkey have to do with the mass firing of the photographic staff of the Chicago Sun-Times?  It illustrates the information dilemma. For those still unaware of it, the Sun-Times “laid off its entire 28-person photography staff — including Pulitzer prize winner John White  … The newspaper said it plans to use freelance reporters and photographers and blamed the move on a demand for ‘more video content’ from its audience.” In partial recompense it offered all of its remaining journalists free lessons in Iphone photography.

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Once upon a time the PJ’s were the best and most cost effective source of photographic imagery. And over time they became a guild. But the guild could not protect itself against technology. A  flood of new and cheaply available information from crowdsourced images became available. And then the newspaper was faced with the choice between economics or its Narrative.  And economics won.

In Turkey the unrest directed against the government of Recip Erdogan is being coordinated over the Internet. “Use of the social networking website has soared in Turkey as the protests have gathered pace, with at least 2 million tweets on the demonstrations being sent between 4pm and midnight on Friday alone, according to a study by New York University. Even after midnight more than 3000 tweets were published every minute.”

Them’s a lot of Tweets. Erdogan was not amused.

Mr. Erdogan on Sunday lashed out at Twitter in an interview. “Right now, of course, there is this curse called Twitter, all forms of lies are there,” said Mr. Erdogan, who tweets daily to more than 2.5 million followers. “This thing called social media is a curse on societies.”

Except of course when Erdogan uses Twitter to disseminate his will to the followers. But that’s the problem with technology. It goes everywhere. Well live by the Narrative, die by information.

The basic problem for the status quo is that it both needs and fears information. It wants to use Facebook and Twitter to keep the low information voters onside. But other people use it too. Scientific inquiry and technological cross-fertilization must continue unimpeded for economic growth to be maintained. Knowledge must be communicated to investors to raise capital; and the products derived thereby turned into mass consumer products.

And that creates dangers. Information is a two-edged sword.

The 3D printer is an example of this conflict of requirement and fear. 3D printing promises to revolutionize distributed manufacturing, engineering and prototyping. Yet at the same time it enables individuals to defy the state; to build proscribed things by simply printing the engineering designs into a physical form. Advancing technologies will pose similar dilemmas.

This fact is unappreciated by journalism professor Christopher Swindell, as quoted by the People’s Cube blog (I have replaced it with a better reference here) expresses his hatred for the National Rifle Association by fantasizing about its destruction by government armed forces. He believes 2nd Amendment firearms can’t resist the government boot.

Except it won’t be a boot. It’ll be an M1A Abrams tank, supported by an F22 Raptor squadron with Hellfire missiles. Try treason on for size. See how that suits. And their assault arsenal and RPGs won’t do them any good.

But quite apart from the fact that F22 Raptors don’t fire Hellfire missiles, Swindell makes the mistake of imagining that a country’s armed forces can be separated from the society which gives rise to it; that it is possible to conduct military operations against one’s own infrastructure without consequences. The US military – including Swindell’s beloved Hellfire armed F22s – derive their strength from  the productivity of American society.

Once the regular armed forces are employed in counterinsurgency operations against itself the nation becomes a worthless Third World country.  It blows its own tail up. There are many examples of countries which tried to crush its populations with military force. Nearly all of them have found they could not meet internal and external threats at the same time. Even the Soviet Union failed to solve the problem of simultaneously repressing Russians and growing the Russian economy. It eventually fell without ever being invaded.

Erdogan is now caught on the horns of the dilemma. Turkey’s recent economic progress has provided the cash for people to buy smartphones. Now can you sell them on an 8th century ideal?

You can have one of two things: a free information flow or repression. The way the establishment fudges the dilemma is by resort to the Narrative. The Narrative — an artificially constructed and commonly agreed fiction — keeps people from thinking about the truth of their condition by distracting them with and endless succession of squirrels. Talk about gay boy scouts, Global Warming, hatred for Israel, “reality” TV and you can postpone the choice for a time. But once the population begins to focus on the relevant facts, the Narrative must give way to more kinetic modes of control.

And kinetic repression works only up to a point. People like Swindell never realize that boots are really only good for walking. They never achieve anything by being shoved in the face of societies that can pay him a salary.  A culture that can develop “Hellfire armed F22s” is one that will grind to a stop if it is blown up by them. The only achievable repressive society is the 19th century Marxist ideal, where everyone has a bowlful of gruel, a plate of boiled cabbage and a coatful of lice.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99
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